Coffee Break

Aishwarya Rai, my name, & the gender norms projected on and off screen

. 6 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
Aishwarya Rai, my name, & the gender norms projected on and off screen

In Kool Kanya’s theme for the month ﹘  Challenging Gender Roles ﹘ we unpack the stereotypes and biases that govern women in the workplace. 

A friend recently shared an article with me that talked of ‘the Sanjana effect’.

A woman, Sanjana Ramachandran, spoke to roughly fifty other Sanjanas and their parents as to why they had named their daughter that. The common origin story tying all their conversations together was a Pepsi commercial starring Aishwarya Rai.

In the commercial, a young Aamir Khan opens the door on a stormy night to find his neighbour asking him if he has a Lehar Pepsi. Aamir braves the storm and brings her back a bottle of Pepsi. There’s another knock on the door and the neighbour says, ‘That must be Sanju’. As Aamir visibly worries that ‘Sanju’ is her boyfriend, in walks a 19-year-old Aishwarya Rai, sporting wet hair, red lipstick, black trousers, and black heels. ‘Hi, I’m Sanjana. Got another Pepsi?’ she asks.

The popularity of the ad, the name and Aishwarya donning it, the article muses, launched several babies with the same name. The author’s research showed that there were more than twice as many Sanjanas born in 1993 – the year that the commercial came out – as compared to the preceding three years.

The author’s research showed that an entire generation of parents wished to ‘channel the spirit of Rai and her public success’ for their daughters. One Sanjana’s mother ‘wanted her child to carry herself with the grace and poise that Ash did.’ The author’s own mother spoke of how Aishwarya Rai signified it all – ‘Beauty, success, making her parents proud.’

The article inspired me to talk to my own parents and that of a few other Sanjanas I know (we aren’t hard to find, clearly). One Sanjana’s mother said, “It was a modern name but it was also so feminine. Aishwarya, both in the commercial and elsewhere – like when she won the Miss World title – was so graceful.” Another Sanjana’s parents spoke along the same lines – popularity, poise, beauty, and grace.

In hoping to channel the spirit of Rai, the parents hoped to channel what was, at the time, considered to be the epitome of femininity.

How our names might influence who we are and how we are perceived

The names we are given, and the gendered norms they are inspired by and hope to encourage, can be felt throughout our lives, be it in our careers or in our socialising

A study by two professors at Harvard University in 1984 found that people with unusual names had a less positive academic trajectory than those with more common names.

Research done by The New Yorker found that ‘names can influence choice of profession, where we live, whom we marry, the grades we earn, the stocks we invest in, whether we’re accepted to a school or are hired for a particular job, and the quality of our work in a group setting.’

These findings are largely attributed to the fact that we are more drawn to what most resembles us or is most familiar to us. More common names are better liked, as psychologist Debra Crisp found in 1984.

And the more common names in the last few decades, as seen in the ‘Sanjana effect’, have inevitably been linked to the mass exposure to and obsession with pop culture. 

Bollywood’s women embodied the ‘ideal’ balance of femininity and modernity 

Naming children based on the qualities you hope they possess is not an unknown phenomenon.

Earlier, names would be picked from mythology – children donning the names of gods and goddesses. Shiva, Vishnu, Ram, Lakshman, Krishna, Arjun, and so on, to signify everything masculine, and Parvati, Sita, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and so on, to signify everything feminine.

As we entered an era of Bollywood that grew to unprecedented heights in mass appeal, the reference points for these qualities shifted.

The 90s and 2000s are a period dominated by movies that are considered to be kitschy and ‘cringe-fests’ today, but that are also rooted deeply in our cultural conscience and who we are. Those of us born during the period are very much a product of the cinema-exposed and Bollywood-obsessed time.

Names like Sanjana, Anjali, Pooja, and Simran sit comfortably in the top 20 names of almost every ‘Most popular Indian baby names for girls’ list of the late 90s and early 2000s – catapulted to popularity by ads like the Pepsi one and movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Mein Prem Ki Deewani Hoon, Dil Toh Paagal Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.

The names of the actual celebrities who played these characters seem to not have attained the same level of popularity that the characters they played did. While Aishwarya was a fairly popular name, names like Kajol, Kareena, Madhuri, or Rani never made it to the top quarter of popular girl names.

The celebrities themselves, during a decade where there was no social media or Netflix, were fairly inaccessible to the masses as compared to the characters we saw on-screen. The celebrities were idolised and worshipped while the characters they played were embraced, embodied, and – in naming children Sanjana, Anjali, Raj, and Rahul – carried on by future generations.

Names were largely inspired by pop culture and what we were seeing in pop culture for women was a continued glorification of traditional femininity in a modernised context.

Tina in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai sings Om Jai Jagdish Hare in her modern trousers and Anjali goes from being a lovable tomboy to a lovable woman wearing sarees; Poo in K3G tries to seem more traditional and family-oriented to woo her man; Simran in DDLJ travels Europe but also respects her bauji.

The women of the time heralded modernity while also holding on to the roots of femininity and traditionality – the perfect balance when naming a daughter.

This is a balance that seems to have been hit with Aishwarya Rai’s Sanju in the Pepsi ad.

Would the name Sanjana have seen the same spike after the Pepsi ad if the role had been played by any of the other popular actresses of the time? Maybe. Would the name have seen a spike if it was a different name? Maybe.

What we do know is that a less feminine woman in trousers and a white shirt would probably not have inspired the same awe. We know that a less Hindu name would not have seen the same spike in numbers. Something about the combination of the soon-to-be Miss World in a modern pair of trousers and red lips, with a name that sounded Hindu enough, and upper-class and upper-caste enough, worked. 

What’s in a name?

There have been advantages and annoyances to the commonality of my name. There have been stereotypes imposed and broken. There have been traditions discarded and kept. Through it all, I’ve gone from being fond, to neutral, to being more than, my name. 

I recently found some grainy footage from the 90s of my pregnant mother saying, “When the child grows up, we’ll go to Europe together.” My grandmother can be heard in the background asking, “And if it’s a girl?” My mother’s eyes widen in glee and she says, ‘I hope so!’

Now when I talk to her about how Aishwarya Rai inspired my name, she says, “I always loved those black trousers she wore in that ad. I used to have a similar pair.” She reminisces fondly for a minute and says, “We should get you trousers like that for the office.”

And so we did.

This particular Sanjana, through all the stereotypes, the Bollywood-isation of her understanding of femininity, the conditioning internalised and eventually unlearned, is glad today for her name, the pair of trousers that inspired it, and the gender norms that once encouraged upon her, she is now wholeheartedly encouraged to break.